a french garden

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It’s spring, it’s official

Today the sun was out, tempting me out into the garden again.

The long cold spell has taken its toll.  It does not look like my garden as I know it at this time of year.  I have iris leaves turned black and looking more like some exotic grass species.  I go around pondering the toll of the freezing weather we have had.

Then I see a friend basking in the sunshine, settled on the frozen remains of my climbing rose “Madame Isaac Pereire”.  I am so glad to see her back as the little green tree frogs are very welcome visitors but I have been concerned that the bitter weather had taken its toll on them too.

I spot another one in the well outside our dining room window.  The well is a favourite spot and is the haunt of the frogs, newts and lizards.  Not such a good place to be if you were an insect, I guess.  They are well camouflaged (no pun intended!) against the ferns but often come out when it rains.  She is called La Rainette in this area and if I read my favourite website (http://www.herpfrance.com/fr/  ) correctly Hyla arborea in Latin.

The lizards are active in the sunshine and I managed to photograph a little one before it hid in a hole in the wall of the house.  Once again I think these must be Podarcis muralis but I am quite happy to be corrected on that.  They provide unlimited amusement with their antics, scampering over the patio and walls in the sunshine.

It is the sunshine and warmth that I look forward to.  Today I saw a sign that is a sure harbinger of spring.  This afternoon I took a walk in the countryside and spotted butterflies.  One was brown coloured and more shy, veering off quickly into the woods.  The other was more friendly and was happy to warm itself up on the asphalt track – just long enough to get a photograph, a peacock butterfly.



The call of the sea

Yesterday I did potter in the garden, I did try to enthuse myself in the many tasks that have to be tackled to clear up after the big freeze and before the spring.  However, the afternoon was sunny and as they say over here “it was stronger that me” – I wanted to see the sea.

The slogan of Charente Maritime is “Entre Terre et Mer”, that is between land and sea.  I love the countryside, the woods and fields but I would not like to live too far away from the sea.

In half an hour I can be at the Grande Cote and overlook a beautiful sandy beach that extends for miles backed by pine forest right up to La Palmyre  a small, mainly tourist town. Yesterday the beach at the Grand Cote had few tourists, their places taken up by a few amateur fishermen using cane and spinning reel.  The fish are not abundant here but they might hope to catch a small bass or bream or even a conger eel.

Walking towards St.Palais along the cliff I was satisfied by the sound and the smell of the sea.  A seascape does not change so radically as the seasons change in the countryside but it is good to walk by the edge of the Atlantic and touch the edge of the rest of the world.

An oddity of the region are the “carrelet” that can be seen along the coasts here.  These little cabins that are connected to the mainland by a wooden bridge have a square fishing net that can be raised and lowered.  It appears to be a definitely low-key method of fishing and many people are seduced by these picturesque cabins –  finding their little island of tranquillity seemingly in the middle of the sea without putting their foot on a boat.  I have been told that the carrelet are a highly prized and expensive purchase used for leisure rather than for commercial fishing.  If you are interested in finding out more on carrelet in the region there is an informative web page http://www.pays-royannais-patrimoine.com/themes/peche/les-carrelets-sur-ponton/des-carrelets-et-des-hommes/

St Palais sur Mer is about three and a half to four kilometres along the coast from the Grande Cote.  It is a charming little town offering a selection of bars to rest to refresh before setting out on the return journey.

Nearing St Palais I saw some ducks  in the shallow waters of the natural harbour.  However, after a bit of research I find these birds were not ducks but Brant geese, Branta bernicla or Bernache cravant that over winter in the region.

Hopefully the sea air will refresh and revive.

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Life is good!

Life is good!

It is three days after the glacial weather has finished here and the outside temperature has soared to 10 C in the garden.

It means relaxing with mugs of tea on the stone bench against the wall  and soaking up the sun.

The snowdrops are happy.

The crocus are happy.  Even one of our resident newts has come for a visit.

O.K.  the weeds are happy too.

But heck, life is good.


I’m just mad about saffron

First saffron flower

At last the glacial cold spell is loosing its grip and the thermometer is rising above zero!  However, the crisp, icy weather and blue skies has been replaced with a thick cloud covering.  Somebody nearby is getting snow. I should be grateful – it could have been worse.  Never-the-less I fret for my plants and it will not be for some time before I will be able to count all the damages.  I doubt whether my saffron bulbs will return this autumn.

I had always nurtured a desire to grow saffron.  I use the saffron to colour and aromatise my rice and the idea to actually produce my own home-grown variety was tantalising.  I had never had the time to consecrate to the finer details during my first years battling in the garden, there was just too much to do.

It was when we went on a trip to the Limousin 2008 that I noticed a mention of an exhibition by a saffron producer in a touristic leaflet. I wanted to explore the region and so set of on the hunt for the saffron exhibition.  Very little information had been provided but after a visit to the local Mairie where they kindly photocopied a local map I had a better idea of where it might be. Furnished with improved directions I headed off in search of my saffron producer. After some time and having exhausted all possible leads I stopped to ask the only human I had seen since leaving the Mairie.  He was tending to something in his field and I approached clutching my tourist brochure and asked him if he knew where the saffron exhibition was that was mentioned in the leaflet.  He seemed quite bemused and pointed out to me that it was September.  Tourists only come in July and August.  I apologised but pointed out that here I was and I was indeed a tourist even if it was September, as he had quite correctly noted.  To my surprise I discovered that I was talking to my saffron producer himself and after our initial misunderstanding and realising we were from the Charente-Maritime he kindly invited us to have a private viewing of his exhibition which he kept in his shed next to his house.  It was not an extensive collection but the visit was memorable by its warmth and shared interest.  As we left he selected six bulbs for me to try in my garden.  I was very touched by the gift which increased my determination to try my own saffron plantation.

My bulbs were duly planted on the 5 September 2008 and much to my surprise all produced flowers the following year!

Such a beautiful crop!  Watching the purple flowers push through and snipping off the stigmas as they opened is such suitable occupation for a lady gardener.  Here, I note, I am fantasising not only of being a gardener but being a lady gardener!

My saffron producer advised me to dig the bulbs up each year and store them in a cool, dry place where they would not be frozen.  I forgot, but the following year I was rewarded for my carelessness by an even larger crop of saffron flowers.  I assumed that our mild winters allowed the bulbs to be left in the soil and I liked the idea of the leaves enjoying our warm, sunny autumns to provide plenty of energy for more bulbs and flowers in subsequent seasons.  I, therefore decided to leave the saffron bulbs in the soil all year round.

The saffron crocus (Crocus sativus ) likes warm, free draining alkaline soil and sunshine, perfect for my garden.  However, it takes 500 flowers to produce 3 grams of dried saffron so I am not yet self-sufficient in saffron.  Only the three red stigmas are used but they air dry easily if left inside before being stored in a sealed container.

Part of last year's harvest

I have been looking forward to my autumn saffron as even from my first harvest of 18 stigmas I was able to make a little saffron rice which I presented with pride to my sister who was visiting.  This year I must make a decision.  Should I buy more saffron bulbs in August or leave my saffron plantation to chance?


A snake in the house

It is still glacial; I am still drawn towards my warm place near the log fire, watching my frozen garden like a stranger, not quite recognising it as mine.  It was -12 C this morning, one degree warmer than yesterday.  Should I take this as a good sign?  The weather forecast predicts warmer temperatures for next week.

Still on the theme of our uninvited visitors, I recall our first encounter just a short while after we had arrived to take up permanent residence here inFrance.  It was in the evening and before retiring I decided to make some tea.  I rose from the living room and put on the dining room light and froze.  A snake was on the floor under my sideboard.  Its head was protruding from the one side of the cabinet while its tail was still casually trailing behind and visible from the other end.  I did a quick mental calculation – not difficult as I knew my sideboard was 1m30 (4ft 3 ins).  The snake was nearly 2 metres long.

We had never had any problem with snakes in our apartment in Aberdeen.  I quickly pointed out to my husband that we had a 2 metre snake under our sideboard.  He got down on his hands and knees to check this out as the reptile had quickly tucked his head and tail beneath the sideboard.  He got up and paused to think as I waited for inspiration.

“Get that book we have on garden animals”, he suggested.

“What the Collins Nature Guide on Garden Animals?  The one with the hedgehog on the front?  I think not!”

We retired to the living room for further discussion of the usual marital variety while the snake decided to explore, sliding along between floor and wall.  My husband was determined that it had to be evicted before we went to bed but the snake was amazingly rapid for something with no legs.  He then had the brain wave of hitting the tiles behind him and forcing him to flee from the noise in the direction we wanted.  In this way we managed to chase him along the skirting towards the dining room patio doors.  Opening the patio doors and banging from both sides we forced him to escape through the open door.  He took off across the patio and slid up a stone flower trough.  Safe on top of the trough he rose up, hissed viciously and sped off.

This was the first noise he had made so he definitely espoused the idea that the better part of valour is discretion.

In due course I found an excellent web page in English as well as French http://www.herpfrance.com/reptile/western_whip_snake_hierophis_viridiflavus.php which allowed me to identify our visitor as the Western Whipsnake Hierophis viridiflavus.

Unfortunately, snakes are not well loved or understood in this area.  Although most people would identify the snake as a “couleuvre” which is known to be harmless, many would prefer to kill them and ask questions later.

Our snake is still with us.  We have not had any inside visits again but we see him outside from time to time and he leaves his shed skin in the outbuilding (cellier) to reassure us that he has not deserted us.


Hoopoe rescue

My solitary lapwing is still visiting.  He has now trained me to re-hydrate dry puppy  food and put this outside the living room door.  I hope he appreciates them as much as the other birds do.

The glacial weather continues in this normally clement area of France, it was -13 C this morning at 8 a.m.  I am spending more time beside our log burning “insert” – a closed log fire that in addition warms the air by a heat exchange system. I am wondering if it is our house in particular or if all houses have their share of unexpected visitors.

My lapwing makes me think of a summer visitor to the garden who also has an elegant crest – the hoopoe (Upupa epops) or huppe.  One in particular, paid us a visit last year – entering via the insert.  This is in itself quite a feat as the insert is not open like a normal fireplace but blocked by a heavy metal plate.  Returning home one afternoon at the end of April last year we were alerted by a scuttling noise emanating from the insert.  When we opened the glass door a hoopoe was perched in the far corner on top of the cinders which luckily dated from some days earlier!

He looked amazingly smart for something that had just come down a chimney.  My husband happily took up the challenge to retrieve him and enjoy the rare opportunity to have a hoopoe in his hand.


The hoopoe looks such an exotic bird with its colourful markings and retractable crown feathers.  We had often seen them from afar and we were even more impressed with its markings and regal composure when we had the opportunity to view it so closely.  Not wishing to cause it distress we quickly released it into the front garden.

He took flight and shook off the inconveniences and affronts of falling down a chimney and being handled by a human with regal aplomb and looked down at us from the telephone wire with the hauteur of regard suitable for such a magnificent bird towards mere earthlings.

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The solitary lapwing

During the past few days I have noticed a solitary lapwing (Vanellus vanellus) in our front garden.  I found this rather strange as I have only seen them previously in flocks during cold weather in the nearby fields.  I admit to having a special fondness for them as they recall my childhood following my father on his fishing trips in the west of Scotland.  There too they were in flocks and I loved to hear their distinctive cry which gives them their common name of peewits.

Being unsure of their habits I checked with the RSBP website and sure enough they do flock on farmland and ploughed fields.  So what was a single one doing in our garden day after day?

The worrying aspect of this is that his chosen “patch” is just outside our living room door (glass door).  He appears to be looking in forlornly from the sub-zero outside while I sit comfortable beside my log fire.  It seems as if I am refusing entry to  a reticent guest.

I warn myself of the dangers of transferring human emotions to animals with no ability to feel them.  After all that patch of the lawn is now clear of snow and I have seen the blackbirds feeding on it so the lapwing must be doing likewise. Then he walks past the window again and stands one leg as if he is trying to warm up the other one.

I really must get out more.